Reform in Britain 1780 - 1890


What caused discontent?

Policies – Corn Laws, Repeal of Income Tax & Six acts

Unemployment – the end of the French wars, all related industries: armaments, uniforms

Impact of new machines/industrialisation – Luddites

End of War with France – repeal of income tax

French Revolution – threat of revolution, their landowning supporters would be harshly affected if a similar revolution broke out

→  Lack of political voice – working/middle class, wc = Luddites

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What caused discontent?

The End of the French Wars:

added to the economic problems and bred further discontent, 200,00 soldiers returned home looking for work when things were difficult creating higher levels of unemployment, causing a slump in all related industries such as those making the uniforms and armaments, government contracts finished.

Industrial revolution:

Industrial revolutions: Working and living conditions and the new industrial towns were awful - 17 hour working days, child labour, no regulation and poor housing Industrial rev resulted in a change from the domestic system to the factory system, new machines replaced well paid skilled craftsmen, causing protests such as – Luddites

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Post-war problems - Demand

During war trade had been disrupted so British farmers had had more demand than previously as there was no competition.

When war ended, cheaper foreign food could be imported again the landed classes put pressure on the government to protect their profits

Instead of letting prices fall after war, gov introduced Corn Laws 1815. Corn laws stated that foreign wheat could only be imported if the price of wheat home grown had reached 80 shillings a quarter.

Kept the price of bread high

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Post-war problems - Income Tax

Income tax had been introduced by Pitt as a wartime measure, unpopular among those with a high income

Repealed in 1816, indirect taxes on basic good such as sugar, tea, tobacco which hit the poor, causing discontent.

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Post-war problems - Luddites (1811-1817)

Luddites (1811-1817)

involved workers in 3 trades: the croppers, framework-knitters and cotton weavers.

All these workers were suffering economic hardships – the use of labour-saving machinery. They relieved their feelings by smashing machinery in a fit of temper, almost 1000 frames valued at £6000 were destroyed

The government responded by making frame-braking punishable by death, culprits were usually executed. 

the Luddites as well as an economic and industrial protest movement, it had political aims as well, to gain political consciousness of the wc.

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Post-war problems - Spa Fields (1816)

Spa Fields (1816)

there was 3 separate meetings, the second of which ended in a riot. Main speaker was Hunt who argued for parliamentary reform, universal suffrage, voting in secret(secret ballot) and annual elections.

organisers were more radical, Thistlewood and Watsons led a mob hoped to excite crowd into attacking prisons, the Bank of England and Tower of London

Only dispersed by troops after several hours of rioting.

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Post-war problems - March of the Blanketeers (Marc

March of the Blanketeers (March 1817)

Protest was partly against governments measures and partly an attempt to petition Prince Regent to do something to relieve depression

peaceful march, 13 leaders were sent to prison, pathetic incident but led to great fear of revolution, but after several weeks of leaders being imprisoned they were freed.

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Post-war problems - The Pentrich/Derbyshire Rising

The Pentrich/Derbyshire Rising: (June 1817)

Protest was encouraged by a government spy known as Oliver, they stirred up rebellions so they could be paid for their job.

Arranged a march, Brandreth assured his followers that the whole country would rise with them, militia was waiting for marchers, rising ended as men ran off.

Six men were hanged (including Brandreth) and 30 transported).

Oliver was exposed as an embarrassment to the government

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Post-war problems - The Peterloo Massacre (16th Au

The Peterloo Massacre (16th August 1819)

meeting in Manchester planned to elect Hunt as wc mans representative for Lancashire had to be cancelled as it was declared illegal.

reorganised for 16 Aug and held on St. peters field, was to be addressed by Hunt

aim: demand reform of parliament: wanted a government by the people for the people

Organisers wanted a peaceful event to show they were respectable, responsible.

Magistrates brought in Yeomanry to control the crowd – 50,000 to 60,000 people, justices of the peace decided to arrest Hunt and disperse the crowd.

troops caused a panic, result was 11 dead and 400 wounded.

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Post-war problems - THE SIX ACTS 1819


         Banned public meetings where people met to draft petitions

         Allowed magistrates to confiscate weapons

         confiscate seditious literature

         increased stamp duty on newspapers and pamphlets

         Banned training of private armies

Gave prosecution greater power in treason trials

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Post-war problems - Cato Street Conspiracy ( FEB 1

Cato Street Conspiracy ( FEB 1820)

Thistlewood & Watsons thought up a scheme with the help of George Edwards.

hq was in cato street, stable.

An advert appeared saying that entire cabinet was to attend dinner, plan was to break into house murder cabinet, kill George IV seize tower of London and BOE and set up provisional government

Idea was clever but whole thing was set up as Edwards was a spy.

Many of the conspirators were arrested

Thistlewood and 4 others were hanged

5 were transported

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Post-war problems - Inflation and lack of confid

 Inflation and lack of confidence in the economy

1819 – Gold standard was restored, stabilising the economy, leading to prosperity
Inflation was reduced, interest rates lowered and borrowing increase

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1815-1822: REPRESSIVE POLICIES - The Six Acts (181

Was the governments response to the peterloo massicare and they thought they would ensure such violence would never happen again through represion

→ power of magistrates to confiscate seditious literature (writings that discussed actions/violence/disobedience against the government)

→ to confiscate weapons

→ banning of public meetings in order to draft petitions

→ increasing power of prosecution on treason trials

→ increasing stamp duty on pamphlets and newspapers

→ banned the training of private armies

Hundreds of prosecutions followed & during 1820 the agitation and violence gradually died away

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1815-1822: REPRESSIVE POLICIES -Suspension Of Habe

→ prisoners had to be charged with an offence, this was to protect people from being kept in prison for long periods of time without being charged, this was suspended

→ A person who had committed no offence could be arrested and held for an indefinite period without charges and a trial

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1815-1822: REPRESSIVE POLICIES - The Use Of Govern

Reduced the possible revolutionary influence in Britain

→ Sometimes they would act as agent provocateures whom encouraged reformers with violent tendencies such as Oliver (Pentrich Rising) who encouraged and exaggerated Brandreth's actions

→ exaggerated threat to law and order but enabled government to arrest possible revolutionary leaders

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Was Britain close to revolution in 1815?


  • Revolutions occur after a war or in a time of economic hardship – Britain was experiencing both, increasing chance
  • Poverty, misery, unemployment, inflation, increased tax (repeal of income tax 1816), and high food prices, made people want change and go to high measures (such as riots) to gain parliamentary reform
  • French Revolution gave people an example to follow, and such occurrences like riots happened before the French rev, very similar to those in Britain, repetition of French rev?
  • Government was extremely unpopular due to it's harsh repressive measures such as their policies which they implemented which made the poor poorer, and secured landowners pay.
  • Government in 1812 allocated 12,000 troops to deal with the uprisings, represents worry fear and threat
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Was Britain close to revolution in 1815?


  • No organised groups ready to plan and start a revolutio
  • Religion acted as a stabilising force, encouraged people to believe in hard work and obedience, retracting people from being violent – people like this don't get involved in a revolution
  • Government took quick action & didn't lose control – banned large meetings and used spies to go to meetings and report back – reactionary – (SSS)
  • Factors that caused a rev in France were not so relative to problems in England as England had steadily changed over a  long period – not such a need for change
  • Britain won the war against France – lifting spirits, revs more likely to occur if feeling of loss over wartime
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In conclusion it is said that the gradual disappearance of agitation and violence during 1820 is not due to the governments repressive measures such as the six acts, Habeaus corpus or government spies and certainly not due to their reforms.
But it had much more to do with the recovery in exports which helped to reduce unemployment as much more jobs were needing employees to create the goods.
Also due to the series of good harvests which brought down the price of bread
Cobbett remarked “I defy you to agitate a fellow with a full stomach”

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Liberal Tories 1822-1827

George Canning who became foreign minister and leader of the House Of Commons, replacing Castlereagh who had committed suicide.

Robert Peel became Home Secretary replacing Sidmouth

Huskisson became President of the Board Of Trade

As well as being open to new ideas, they came from more middle-class backgrounds than the majority of landowning Tories. Canning's parents background was not considered respectable

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What Reforms did the 'liberal' Tories introduce

Huskisson (board of trade) and Robinson both able administrators and financiers were quick to grasp the importance of overseas trade and were therefore prepared to remove antiquated restrictions which were hampering Britain as a trading nation.

Peel was ready to listen to the proposals for reforming prisons, maintaining law and order, and even persuaded to support Catholic emancipation.

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problem was that British merchants were hampered by numerous tariffs (import duties) and other restrictions.

Some imposed to originally protect British interests from foreign competition by making foreign goods more expensive than similar goods produced in Britain. Others had been imposed to raise money during war with France.

There were heavy duties on imported raw materials which were now needed on a much larger scale than before due to the expansion of the British industry.

In 1820 various merchants petitioned the government for free trade (the abolition of all duties) since they were convinced British industry could beat foreign competitors and no longer needed protection and argued that if Britain continued with tariffs then foreign countries would do the same, making British goods more expensive, less demand for them.

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Huskisson reduced import duties – from 50% to 20%

Removed restrictions on the trade of Britain's colonies: could now trade directly with foreign countries for the first time – removed restrictions and reduced duties to encourage trade

Modification of the Navigation Laws to encourage trade:

  • Huskisson's reciprocity of Duties Act (1823) enabled the government to sign agreements with foreign countries completely free entry of each other's ships. (15 agreements were signed)
  • Modification of the Corn Laws (1828) – modified the 1815 corn laws by introducing a sliding scale of import duties, where if British wheat was selling at over 73s a quarter, there would be no duty on imported foreign wheat, but as the price fell, the duty increased.
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problems with existing law and order system:  

  • the penal code (list of punishments for various crimes) was far too harsh/severe over 200 offences which involved minor offences like stealing a loaf of bread was punishable by death
  • conditions in prisoners were atrocious – overcrowded, filthy, child offenders were put together with hardened criminals.

Peel introduced a series of reform which radically changed the whole system of law and order:

  • Penal code reform(1823): the death penalty was abolished for over 180 offences and expect for murder and treason it was left for the judge to decide whether the death penalty should be imposed.
  • →The Jails Act(1823): removed some of the worst abuses from the prison system, made imprisonment a major punishment. Jailers were paid and there were male and female jailers. Also provided education to try and educe re-offending and provided doctors, chaplains and inspectors.
  • The Metropolitan Police force(1829): introduced police force, respect for the police increased as crime and violence were reduced over the whole country.
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  • peel and Wellington piloted 2 important reforms:
  • repeal of the test and corporation act(1828) – this act stated that only Anglicans could hold important positions in the state, non-anglicans and Roman Catholics could not
  • For years the acts had been ignored but their repeal was a recognition of them being considered
  • BUT the repeal was only partial: Roman Catholics were still restricted
  • the Catholic Emancipation Act(1829) – was passed with tremendous controversy which ruined Peel's popularity with the Tory party, finally caused the party to disintegrate.
  • Roman Catholics could now sit in parliament and hold all important offices expect Lord Chancellor of England or Ireland.
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  • Amending act (1825) – however they were limited and they could not try to persuade workers to join (Peel). (repeal of the combination laws 1824 – to allow trade unions to become legal, even though Hume set up a parliamentary committee to study the situation under pressure from the industrialists the government was preparing to reintroduce the Combination laws but place and Hume managed to salvage something for the unions – amending act 1825.
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  • The 1826 Bank Act was put in place to try and decrease the amount of bank notes issued, great confidence in banks – causing increased investment.
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Modification Of The Corn Laws 1828 – sliding scale

The Corn Laws were also modified in 1828 from the 1815 corn laws by the introduction of a sliding scale, this meant that if the price of bread was 73s per quarter bushel then foreign imports would have no import duties, however if the price of domestic bread fell then foreign import duties increased.

This was put in place to protect the landing classes who drew their incomes from tenant farmers, there was also pressure from the farmers who were well represented among MPs.

This ensured farmers gained an income and were employed by the landing classes and also ensured the landing classes profits, increasing level of employment and stabilising the confidence of people within the economy as they felt protected by the governments reforms.

this ensured social and economic stability as the problems that would influence discontent were reduced.

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very helpful 

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